In short, a dead zone in the Gulf can affect your Sunday lunch. But dead zones are not confined to U.S. waters: They affect dozens of coral reefs around the world stretching from South America to Japan and elsewhere and threaten hundreds more, according to a new study by Smithsonian scientists published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Fortunately, there are proven solutions. The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers, academia, governments, and the agriculture industry to tackle the challenge of nutrient runoff. A key goal is to help keep nutrients on fields and out of waterways through different farming practices—such as using cover crops, reduced tillage, crop rotation and nutrient management to the benefit of both farmers and the environment.
The Conservancy and its partners are working in the Mississippi Basin and beyond to enlist the help of nutrient service providers—key advisors to farmers—to promote a science-based approach to apply the right source and rate of nutrients at the right time and place on croplands. Known as the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, this approach is proven to reduce nutrient runoff while increasing farmers’ profits.
The Conservancy has also been working with farmers and other partners along Wisconsin’s Pecatonica River, a tributary of the Mississippi, for a decade testing new approaches to reducing phosphorus and improving water quality in streams. Our results confirmed that targeting agricultural lands with the highest incidences of runoff, rather than randomly throughout a watershed, will result in cleaner water.
Another science-based solution to nutrient runoff is to restore floodplains, which can slow the flow of the water, naturally capturing nutrients that would otherwise drift downstream.
To date, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, along with the Conservancy and others, have helped protect or restore 44,000 acres of floodplain habitat along the Wabash River – a tributary in Indiana and Illinois responsible for delivering a disproportionately high nitrogen load to the Gulf of Mexico. The Conservancy’s goal is to protect or restore an additional 10,000 acres along the Wabash by 2022.